Saudi Arabia frees two jailed activists with U.S. citizenship on bail

DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi authorities have released two activists with U.S. citizenship on bail pending their trials, rights groups and family members said, as the kingdom moves to address criticism from the new U.S. administration over its human rights records.

Bader al-Ibrahim, an epidemiologist and journalist, and Salah al-Haidar, a media commentator whose mother Aziza al-Yousef is a prominent women’s rights campaigner, were released on Thursday.

Their next hearings were set for Feb. 7 and March 8 respectively on terrorism-related charges. Both have been held since April, 2019.

The Saudi government’s media office and the U.S. embassy in Riyadh did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Freedom Initiative, a Wahshington-based rights group, said their release was “welcomed progress, even though it is long overdue”.

“Dr. Bader al-Ibrahim and Salah al-Haidar should have never been jailed in the first place and their release should certainly not be on a ‘temporary’ basis,” it said in a statement sent to Reuters.

Amnesty International also welcomed their release and called on the Saudi government to free “all journalists, activists and human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally”.

The move follows a decision last month not to order another U.S.-Saudi activist, physician Walid al-Fitaihi, back into jail. In a case that had been closely followed by Washington, a Saudi appeals court nearly halved his six-year jail sentence and suspended the rest of his term.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he will take a firmer line regarding the kingdom’s human rights record. He said on Thursday he would halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, demanding that the more than six-year war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, “has to end.”

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, enjoyed a close relationship with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who shielded Saudi Arabia from international criticism after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a Saudi consulate and women’s rights activists were rounded up.

In December, a Saudi court sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to nearly six years in prison. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her jail term, most already served since her arrest in May 2018, meaning she could be released by next month.

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Peter Graff